Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bigots aside, Australians quietly opt to ignore intolerance

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BRISBANE -- "Behead all those who insult the Prophet'' is a protest sign of unquestionable vigour with an admirable clarity of language leaving no doubt about the author's intentions.

But it doesn't prompt your typical response from the average Australian who stumbles upon those noisily engaged in their democratic right to gripe.

One does not toot the horn and wave with cheery enthusiasm as one drives by a "behead all those who insult the Prophet'' sign. Nor, for that matter, does one roll down the window to offer a robust, countervailing argument.

One drives on in silence, gripping the steering wheel a little more tightly, wondering if those hate-filled bigots who rant about Australia being hijacked by a bloodthirsty band of psychotic medievalists might be on to something.

That beheading sign was aired in a Sydney park last weekend as Muslims rioted in protest at a film made in far-off America insulting their religion.

Six police officers were injured, two taken to hospital, while a couple of protesters were treated for police dog bites and many more for the effects of pepper spray.

In the wake of all this unpleasantness the 'beheading' sign has become something of a rallying point. Many Australians would table it in Parliament if they could as irrefutable evidence Muslims will never blend into our imperfect but enduring multicultural rainbow.

That view is nonsense -- for those wanting to play the ancestral antecedents game, thousands of Muslim patriots could claim bluer Australian blood than many European Christians.

They could trace their lineage back to the pioneering days of the mid-19th century when Muslim camel drivers (many from Afghanistan) helped open up the outback.

Thousands more arrived postwar, many from the Balkans, settling peacefully into a normal suburban world that just happens to include visits to a mosque, along with those intriguing dietary restrictions of Ramadan.

But no one argues the actions of no more than a few score protesters in Sydney last weekend have done enormous damage not merely to Muslims but all Australians.

Once the Scot Presbyterian gazed through the curtains at his blameless Irish Catholic neighbour, suspecting him of involvement in some grand, Popish plot to topple the British Crown.

The postwar Italians were grave threats to Australian identity with their strange food and incomprehensible accents, the Asians an invading horde, the "Commos" a sinister presence with a red under every bed.

With those divides largely vanished, it's now the suburban Muslim tinkering with his car at the weekend who's suspected of being the enemy within -- the flaming jihadist plotting the global Caliphate from his oil-stained garage.

Thousands of peace-loving Muslims will now face the hatred and suspicion of a few Australians hard-wired for bigotry -- those unable to grasp the dangers of that primitive tribal instinct that can so swiftly ignite deep malice.

There are glimmers of hope in what to many pessimists appears the almost intractable problem of Muslim integration into the norms of a secular state.

While protesters appeared to come out mid-week against this movie with renewed intensity in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Australia was showing signs of sanity as Muslim leaders warned their communities violence was both unacceptable and counterproductive.

The leaders suggested alternatives available in a democracy -- having an open day at the local mosque or writing letters to politicians to express concerns about the film.

Religious people from the Christians to the Caodaists routinely dismiss attempts to demean their deities without demanding mass decapitations. Muslims, God or Allah willing, will soon learn the value of ignoring insults rather than giving oxygen to their detractors via a public riot.

New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell gave full expression to the mainstream Australian view when he summed up the controversy for what it was:

"What we have here is a fool in the United States who made an incredibly offensive online video... ''

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 J6

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